Access winners deserve big prizes

July 16, 1999

The moves by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to use its full financial muscle to encourage wider access are proof that the new parliament's inquiry into fees is not causing planning blight for Scottish higher education.

Instead, the SHEFC is calling attention to a weakness of access mechanisms in England and Scotland. There have been any number of initiatives funded to support widening access. This approach does some good and makes some headlines, but it has probably reached the end of its usefulness.

The English funding council has now put money into its mainstream funding for access based on postcode analysis and other factors. But the Scots are saying that even this is too narrow an approach.

By contrast, everyone in the university system knows that research success is worth money, in large amounts, for institutions, departments and individuals. A high research ranking brings money into a department directly and makes it more attractive for a wide range of public and private funders.

If increased access is the objective, it too must be rewarded. And as the SHEFC has pointed out, it cannot be rewarded unless it can be measured. Postcode measures of deprivation are at their weakest in several types of geodemographic areas where access is a key issue. In the inner city, housing most people cannot afford can be just yards from housing nobody would want. In the countryside, the software millionaire in the old rectory might share a postcode with a row of tied cottages. More sophisticated methods will be needed to make sure universities are rewarded for widening access. This will be difficult but should be feasible if funding councils and politicians make it clear that significant money rides on the result. And can it be much harder than the research assessment exercise?

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